Politics as Entertainment

polent

Originally published on Oct 21, 2016.

The presidential debates this year have been anything but presidential. But, one thing has been exceptional: the ratings. In fact, the first debate drew almost as many people as the Super Bowl, the most watched television event in the United States. It’s not far-fetched to posit that it hasn’t been Hillary Clinton’s riveting grasp of policy issues which has people tuning in. Rather, it’s undeniable that her opponent and perennial showman, Donald Trump, has been the draw for these new viewers. After all, it seems every time you turn on your TV or check the news online, there is some new and preposterous thing Trump has said. What’s not entertaining about that?

Many people would agree that politics shouldn’t be seen as entertainment but it’s unlikely many would think they are culpable in making it that way. After all, how could their watching CNN, MSNBC, Fox, or Comedy Central to become more informed citizens lead to such a result? In reality, that is precisely what is happening because entertainment is inherent to the way these channels report on politics. It’s not interested in the minutia of bills or the complexity of policies. What it wants, like any entertainment, is fast, exciting, sexy, gory, lewd content that can be quickly consumed and discarded. Its worst invention, the sound bite, haunts politics to this day and is the epitome of the demise it caused: short, vapid, reductivist nonsense masquerading as political thought. Trump’s appearance on the national political stage is the culmination of American politics becoming another cog in the entertainment-oriented culture of the United States.

In other, slightly more normal elections, politicians could hardly expect to excite people with their stump speeches loaded with policy prescriptions nobody — including sometimes themselves — actually understood. The closest anybody came in recent memory was Barack Obama. His “Hope” and “Change” campaign slogans invigorated a nation for the first time in a long time. But after his election, it didn’t take long for the luster of idealism to fade into the crude world that is politics. Despite his best efforts, even the ultra-idealist Obama was brought down a few notches. He registered successes but couldn’t extricate the United States from its destructive foreign policy, despite promises to the contrary. That said, nobody would call Obama entertaining. He’s cool and smart but he’s not entertaining.

Ever since party politics became the norm sometime in the 1800s, American politics has hardly been a cerebral affair. The conventions — which now resemble festivals, complete with musical performances, bright lights, and confetti — were made for posturing and demagoguery. An outgrowth of populism, they are a far cry from the intellectual — if nevertheless vigorous — politics of the Founding Fathers. But it’s grandstanding, crowd-pleasing rhetoric, and fireworks that politicians use to attract attention today, in deference to an entertainment industry that demands it.

It’s not supposed to be this way.

Indeed, it is a plain contravention of the United States’ founding principle of government: republicanism. Although implicitly lamented as an anti-democratic anachronism (because why shouldn’t the people govern in tandem with their representatives?), republicanism was chosen as the form of government by the country’s Founding Fathers because they needed a concept of representative government that gave some power to the people to choose those who will work in their interest but not so much that the people will control every decision.

It is hard to deny that when politicians are apt to appeal to voters’ basest sensibilities, either at their own initiative or as a result of media prodding or both, republicanism in particular and politics in general devolve into what we have today: a form of cheap entertainment, not unlike an exciting but ultimately unsubstantial Michael Bay movie. The problem is, if a movie is unsubstantial, nobody loses their job or their opportunity to get educated or their life. But politics and a lack of seriousness about it can very much lead to these consequences.

Politics should not be entertainment. Politics is a serious business and to treat it with the same flippancy of a really real reality TV show is not only irresponsible, it’s dangerous.

Just like everybody who watches CNBC thinks they’re a day trader or the next Warren Buffet, the nonstop stream of cheap political news peddled by large news organizations interested in inspecting every government official’s every move has rendered every viewer a self-styled political scientist. This is all justified by the belief that representatives owe the public and its supposed tool, the media, an answer whenever it is demanded.

And just like public companies inflate profits to pander to shareholders, many who don’t particularly understand the nuances of the business but think all the profit charts need to have an unhindered upward curve, politicians now pander to constituents through media on a never-ending publicity campaign, exchanging substantive work for cheap barbs and ephemeral political capital.

The progressive downfall of politics as a serious occupation with grave consequences has culminated in the person of Donald Trump. He is not the first one to use TV, to say wild things, to be uneducated, to be simplistic, or to be boorish. But, he has capitalized on a creature of our creation: our obsession with politics that is supposed to be entertaining, rather than somber, boring, and cerebral.

So the next time you’ve got on CNN or Fox News or MSNBC or Comedy Central for your political fix, ask yourself if you’re helping perpetuate politics as entertainment and encouraging politicians to focus on their public image and not on the work they were elected to do. Then turn it over to C-Span. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when a media-savvy pseudo-politician exploits ready consumers of inane political entertainment to his own benefit.

Why?

Why Here?

I suppose the first question which might arise – and which I had to answer myself – is why I would want to write posts on my own website as opposed to one of the myriad available platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, or Medium, among others). Frankly, it is the diversity of the platforms which led me to the decision. Rather than write several different places, I prefer to write in one. Nevertheless, for those who are interested, I will distribute what I write to different media from there; it’s easier on my senses and allows me to focus on my writing. If you insist on being updated as soon as there is new material, you can subscribe to this site and will receive new content as it comes.

Why The Name?

I’ve had blogs in the past, including theGampr, for which I tortured myself to come up with a clever name. Again in the interest of simplicity, I’ve chosen to avoid that process altogether and go with my name as the site’s name. After all, this will be a place for my personal thoughts, opinions, and essays. It will be unlike The Armenite, which is focused solely on Armenian issues and where there are several contributors.

So, the real question is, why not?

Lessons from Adolescence, Barking Dogs, and Salmon Fishing

Dogfish - WilliamBairamian.me

It’s been nearly six months since I’ve written anything on Facebook and longer than that since I published anything on The Armenite. Some people have asked why so I wanted to give an update here.

2016 was a heavy year by any measure, one of great upheaval and acrimony across the world. Most exceptionally, 2016 was the first year when the Internet became a major platform for war; although battles had been fought there before, the convergence of political, military, and media cyber activity led to a ferocity that can only be paralleled to war.

As with other extenuating times, there were many lessons to learn from this troublesome period and my break had much to do with taking stock of and reflecting upon those lessons myself.

Keyboard Thugs to Keyboard Warriors

I grew up just as the Internet was taking off, in the mid and late 90s. I didn’t have the foresight to invest the few hundreds dollars I had to my name in a random dot-com and cash out before the bubble collapsed but I learned some things that I thought were useless until recently.

In the days of the West Coast-East Coast rap wars and the incredibly violent music that came with them, it wasn’t uncommon, particularly in the immigrant-heavy environment in which I grew up in, for kids to be listening to 2Pac and fashioning themselves thugs. But, these kids, like myself, didn’t live in a housing project or dangerous neighborhood like where many of these rappers were coming from and rapping about so they had little chance to live out their thug life fantasies in the real world. That’s where the Internet came in.

With AIM, chat rooms, ICQ, and message boards, kids could be whatever they wanted to be including, for some, thugs, albeit with their keyboards. It would be something like one guy having an issue with another guy and creating an anonymous “screen name” on AIM and messaging the other one with some non-personally-identifiable text like “sup” then launching into a vicious cyber attack about how he’s going to beat his ass. Quite naturally, this would move to an online shouting match in which it was easy for things to escalate because there were no immediate consequences. It probably didn’t help that one of them was probably listening to Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Gangsta Party while the other was wildin’ out to Hit ’Em Up (on WinAmp, of course, because all other mp3 players sucked).

These online tiffs were essentially pressure release valves for issues which would’ve been suppressed in real life because of the physical consequences involved with cursing someone’s mother or telling them that you’re going to beat their ass.

But, with the absence of physical interaction and the possibility for anonymity, you could play out your thug fantasy, feel confident that “you showed him,” and move on to more important things like how you were going to make the station wagon you’re driving look cool when you pull into the school’s parking lot (not possible). Very rarely would these online fights devolve into physical fisticuffs as neither party was terribly interested in living out their thug fantasy in the physical world where physical consequences obtained. Lots of kids also played Doom until the wee hours of the morning but that didn’t mean they hoped to be a soldier in a never-ending maze with demons jumping out at them every three seconds.

It also helped that real thugs didn’t start using the Internet until much later, sometime after the creation of Craigslist made it much easier to rob people by getting them to come directly to your house to pick up what was apparently a nationwide surplus of refrigerators in great condition which were being thrown out.

What does this have to do with 2016?

I came to the uncomfortable if belated realization in 2016 that many of the same principles which led young boys to exercise their fantasies of having a thug life and feeling like a big dog continued to obtain in the age of Facebook and Twitter with people with advanced university degrees, impressive jobs, and even pleasant personalities (in the physical world, at least).

“You will never get to the end of the journey if you stop to shy a stone at every dog that barks.”

Before the Internet, people would derive worthwhile information from books and authorities on subjects who had established their reputation through verifiable experience. There was an opportunity cost to accessing this information and if you went to the bookstore, library, or classroom, you would necessarily be removed from the other activities that might take up your time like watching TV, going to the movies, or talking to your friends. There were physical limitations to what you could do at the same time because you couldn’t watch a movie, talk to your friends, and read a book or sit in on a class in the same space.

Those limitations are now gone.

Today, you watch TV and movies, talk to your friends, read books, and listen to lectures all on the same platform: the Internet. While this is a wondrous development in terms of access to knowledge, it poses a problem. Because the Yale Open Course you want to watch, Facebook, and the “pile of garbage” known as Buzzfeed appear on the same screen on the same device with you accessing all three in the same physical location, your brain is naturally going to have a more difficult time discerning the opportunity cost between them.

Because the brain can no longer use the shelves of a library, the pages of a book, or the seats of a classroom to immediately apply the heuristic which will allow it to determine the difference in importance between the works of Aristotle and a Facebook comment, both of which are found on the same screen sitting in the same place, things can get tricky. This puts the burden on us to create new heuristics which will allow us to determine what is worthwhile and what is not.

Debates

This complication extends to the fora we use for debates because they are often also the places, unlike before, where we interact with our close friends, our casual friends, our family, and people we don’t even know; most of our communication online takes place in the same few spaces.

Think about it: you go on Facebook to check messages your close friend might have sent and all of sudden you’re exposed to a thousand different conversations, most of them by people you will never see in a year’s time and some by people you’ve never even met. It’s like going to the downtown post office a hundred times a day to pick up your mail.

So it goes with debates.

Previously, your decision to enter into a debate with someone would depend heavily on the setting. Say you’re a biology student. You might be inclined to vigorously discuss an issue in a seminar class because you recognized — consciously or not — that your interlocutors could be expected to have a modicum of awareness about the topic being discussed because they were in the same class as you. If you wanted to discuss cell structure and plant physiology with serious people and expect to be taken seriously, you’d have to register for a class, read a book, and develop the ability to articulate your thoughts on the subjects through sustained effort. Conversely, you would be less inclined to enter into a debate with students of Spanish literature about endoplasmic reticula (finally, finally, finally got to use this somewhere).

Today, the biology student is debating cell structure and plant physiology on Facebook not just with her classmates but with her gender studies friends from the dorm, her neighbor across the street from back home, and her grandmother.

Why? Access.

To be able to discuss not just cell structure but also the causal relationship between vaccines and disease all you need are a Facebook account, a group of equally or more ignorant friends, and the ability to read some pseudo-scientist’s musings on a legitimate-looking webpage because while in real life you would be able to easily differentiate between a laboratory at Harvard and the office a charlatan posing as an expert in the basement out of where he’s peddling his nonsense, it’s more difficult to differentiate between the legitimacy of that Harvard laboratory’s website and the website of that same charlatan sitting in his basement; after all, they were probably both made by the same web developer in Hyderabad.

The problem is not these other people with their crazy ideas and expressed opinions exist — they always have. The problem is that these new participants lower the average quality of the debate by the worthlessness of their contributions and the sheer overwhelming volume of them. And now, rather than being contained to drunken conversations at Christmas dinner, you’re surrounded by it daily in any interaction you have online.

Facebook and Dogfish

To be sure, it’s not that Facebook doesn’t host worthwhile conversation or helpful information. However, there is an opportunity cost with trying to fish out that information from Facebook than from a less costly source which might get you the same thing without causing you any heartache.

Since we’re on the subject of fishing, think about the following: if you had a choice, would you rather fish for salmon in Puget Sound where you have to reel in three evil dogfish for every salmon or would you rather stand on the banks of the Columbia River and catch salmon to your heart’s content without any goddamn dogfish? You know and I know that there is only one right answer to that question (unless you’re a sadist, in which case, Facebook all the way).

The evil creature known as dogfish.

Through digital discipline, one can achieve the solitude of the hallowed library or bookstore online, happily bereft of the vulgar chatter.

What does this have to do with 2016 again?

In 2016 I had the revelation that I was in one way or another a party to more worthless discussions than ever before, precipitated by the worst calamities of the 21st century’s teenage years. Though not a parent, I finally felt their collective pain at having to observe and experience the madness of their adolescents, hoping that in the 17th year, they won’t get any more stupid, ugly, or crazy.

It’s hard for me to imagine it getting much stupider, uglier, and crazier, really.

As part of many worthless discussions — mine and others’ — smart and respectable individuals I know celebrated violence and justified murder; an educator mocked my education; an ostensible (and apparently gravely insecure) defender of democratic values tried to intimidate and silence me through the use of buffoonish lawyers. Nevertheless, I appreciated them making the point starkly clear to me.

I welcomed 2017 with the same reveling spirit that I might an exit from the Twilight Zone, where I was apparently residing during the prior year. In recognition of the absurdity of the past year, I also resolved that greater digital discipline might be in order.

Basically, always listen to Winston.

The Future

To allay any great or minor or nonexistent concern of the reader, I will not abscond into a permanent hermitage in avoidance of the world’s vulgarities; I rather like some of the world’s vulgarities, like politics, for example.

But we must choose how to engage with all things in life. I might argue that I’ve learned as much from my detractors as from those people which have helped buttress my own beliefs; some of those people have even been moderately vulgar.

Learning and thinking about worthwhile information for a person who intends to be a part of society can be no more divorced from the vulgar than can an explorer’s expedition be divorced from hardship. It is the very hardships of the adventure with which its discoveries and accomplishments are contrasted and enriched.

But, Christopher Columbus didn’t poke a hole in his ship to make his journey more adventurous; no mindful explorer ventures into more hardship than will already come naturally. On the contrary, he uses his time to prepare for the hardship he knows will come naturally as part of his journey. He is, like the level-headed salmon fisherman, no sadist.

My journey will include my writing and I welcome the hardship that will naturally accompany it. But, in order to better prepare to make my journey successful — the reasons for which I set out on it in the first place — I will spend less time wading into waters off my path that only look like they will cause me to expend great energy on things worthless.

I look forward to valuable discussions and debates in 2017 and hope that this new year will bring with it the triumph of the good and the wise over that which is not.

Happy New Year.

Originally published on Medium on January 23, 2017.

Is Rodrigo Duterte a Canary in the Coalmine?

Rodrigo Duterte_Canary in the Coalmine_WilliamBairamian.me

The United States is aghast at Rodrigo Duterte, president of their stalwart ally, the Philippines. He has called president Barack Obama a son of a whore, cancelled joint military drills, and announced that he will separate his country’s foreign (and now defense) policy with the United States’. Although it’s easy to write him off as a kook, Duterte might well be the canary in the coalmine about the coming state of the global balance of power.

There is no shortage of theories about the decline of the United States and the rise of China. Whatever one’s position, it’s undeniable that the US’s power, if it’s not decreasing in absolute terms, is being mitigated, not least by China. And, not surprisingly, the Chinese are using their increasing influence to assert themselves, at the very least, as a regional hegemon, a status they previously held for millennia.

Until now, it made sense for the Philippines to maintain its very strong ties with the United States. As a former colony of the superpower and situated in a geographically strategic location in the South China Sea, it enjoyed a privileged status that led to significant American military aid and cooperation, as well as investment. This was useful to counterbalance the growing power of the Chinese. But, as it’s distracted itself with Pyrrhic wars in the Middle East, the United States has huffed and puffed but it’s done little to protect US allies from new threats in Asia. Most notably, China has reclaimed its position as a regional military power and, more disconcerting in the near term, North Korea has developed functioning nuclear weapons.

Given Chinese imperial history, its aggressive claims of sovereignty over land and sea including the Senkaku Islands (claimed by Japan), Taiwan, and the South China Sea, and its continued support of the antagonistic North Koreans, many of China’s neighbors are looking askance at its rise. Indeed, it seems China is less concerned with allaying the concerns of neighboring states and more concerned with reprising that which it considers to be its rightful property.

The United States was well aware of potential threats to the world order emanating from Asia after a rapidly industrialized and bellicose Japan attacked it during World War II. It wasn’t long after that the US was again militarily engaged in Asia, fighting in the Korean War. Like in Europe, the United States didn’t let these good crises go to waste and sought to temper future wars by impressing its military upon the land. It worked — for a time.

Its own proxy wars with the Soviet Union notwithstanding, the United States’ role as a pacifier in Asia and Europe was encouraging: the Europeans stopped killing each other for the first time in centuries, the Koreas stopped fighting, the Chinese and Japanese stopped fighting, and China didn’t invade Taiwan. Indochina was admittedly the exception, highlighted by the horrendous violence of the Cambodian Genocide and the Vietnam War, which crept into other parts of the region. But these were more or less contained to the peninsula and the rest of Southeast Asia remained peaceful. In fact, during this peace in Asia, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand became successful, industrialized economies.

The byproduct of this peace and accompanying prosperity was a China focused intently on economic growth without the distraction of conflict. The United States, busy with containing the powerful Soviet Union, spent far less time and effort on containing China; while the Soviet Union had to deal with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), China had no such concern. Then, after the fall of the USSR, rather than immediately recalibrating American foreign and military policy toward Asia, America continued spending valuable resources in Europe, expanding NATO, and trying and failing to do with Russia what it did with the rest of Eastern Europe. All the while, China steadily chipped away at its aim to reemerge as a superpower.

Although America maintains a military presence in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore to this day, its flaccid approach to maintaining the upper hand in Asia has left allies worried. Whereas in decades past Japan was content to depend on the American military, it has recently increased spending on its own military — going on five straight years — suggesting that it is not satisfied to leave the defense of its borders and interests solely to the United States. The Republic of China, better known as Taiwan, with a population a quarter the size of the Philippines, spends over $15 billion on its military; the South Koreans and Japanese spend over $30 billion and $50 billion a year, respectively; and Singapore, a city-state of under 6 million people, has a military budget of over $10 billion.

The Philippines, by contrast, is militarily weak and impoverished. Although it has twice the population of South Korea, it has only 1/7th as many active personnel (and many fewer reservists). Compared to other countries potentially threatened by the rise of China, the Philippines spends a paltry $3 billion.

It is conceivable, then, that Duterte, taking into account his country’s comparatively low GDP and martial capability, America’s military tepidity in Asia, and a more aggressive China, is trying to head off the coming storm by realigning his country while China is still looking for friends. Unlike many other Asian countries, he has chosen to not see China as a foe and instead of antagonizing the giant, he has chosen to situate the Philippines under the dragon’s wing. If Duterte’s bet pans out, his cold calculus could be rewarded as China’s power grows and it feels a need to buttress friendly countries like the Philippines as a counterbalance to its American-backed opponents. It may even lead to other states it is even more assertive with the Japanese, Taiwanese, and other nearby states.

Even if the Philippines end up not benefiting as much Duterte thinks, it is telling that a weak country trades its sturdy relationship with the world’s only superpower for an up-and-comer.


Originally published at Politics &.

Book Review: There Was and There Was Not

Originally published on The Armenite.

Meline Toumani writes in There Was and There Was Not about her life in the Armenian Diaspora, Turkey, and the experiences she has while searching for depth in her identity.

In the film Pleasantville, the residents of a perfect American town live blissfully in a colorless world. Everything follows an order, life is simple, and everything is, literally, black and white. That’s until two visitors from a parallel universe come to town and one of them has sex – unknown in Pleasantville – with one of the townsfolk. Things are no longer monochromatic; they slowly gain color. They are rejected, as change usually is, but Pleasantville continues to colorize.

Meline Toumani is an author looking for color.

In her first book, There Was and There Was Not, Toumani describes her feeling that Armenian identity is limited by genocide recognition; in her view, it has become all-consuming. “To me, it came to mean that I could no longer stand to attend any Armenian gathering,” she writes. “ …it seemed that whether it was a poetry reading, a concert, or even a sporting match, it was always, ultimately, about the genocide.”

Uninhibited and even admitting to her lack of certainty occasionally, Toumani indulges us in a way uncommon among the overly reserved or overly confident discussants of Armenian issues. In this regard, she is unique.

She goes down the rabbit hole, questions herself and her reality, and for that she must be commended. She asks if the genocide recognition movement costs Armenians more than it is worth, a valid question for a new generation of Armenians who live in a different world than when the movement first began. There is indeed good reason for the ongoing pursuit of genocide recognition – some of which she encounters on her journey – and that is precisely why it should be asked: so young Armenians understand its logic rather than assume the mindless repetition which so infuriates Toumani.

There are times, however, when the book reads more like the diary entry of a person interested in a topic yet unfamiliar with the nuances of the argument. There are many complicated issues she broaches without much preparation: the border between Armenia and Turkey, closed by the latter; the Karabakh War and its consequences; even genocide recognition itself. Toumani is a journalist, not an expert. Her observations are sharp but they cannot be considered holistic nor necessarily representative.

She begins by describing various episodes during her life in the Armenia Diaspora and how they start to overwhelm her, pushing her to choose between false dichotomies: Was the “Lisbon 5” right or wrong? Was she with the Armenians or against them at UC Berkeley after an altercation with a Genocide denier?

An experience she has in Times Square in New York presents the mechanized rhetoric of some activists in the genocide recognition movement when she encounters “a script so familiar” that she could recite it in her sleep. She becomes motivated by the idea that “our obsession with 1915 was destroying us.”

Feeling suffocated, she wants to escape her Diaspora reality and face what is the subject of it for her: the Turk; so, she goes to Turkey.

Toumani takes us through her taxing journey in this post-genocidal country as a Diaspora Armenian, with all the psychological accoutrements, but with the conviction to try. Toumani meets with Turkish citizens of every stripe: socialists, Kurds, “White Turks,” nationalists, revisionists, intellectuals, historians, faux-historians, townsfolk, and urbanites.

She shares with us the neuroses felt by an Armenian living among Turks: do you tell them you’re Armenian? Are they judging you when you do? Do they care? Should you treat her differently because she’s a Turk? Should you find out their views about the Genocide before deciding whether or not you like them? And the exhaustion this exercise, repeated, causes a person – which ultimately becomes her motivation for moving back to the U.S.

While living there, however, it becomes clear that Toumani is a woman who wants Turkey to have a reckoning with the Genocide and its consequences — she just doesn’t understand how it should be done, though she’s there to try and find out.

But, most significantly, for all the questions she has about the wisdom of genocide recognition – the catalyst of this book – she is either oblivious or consciously fails to acknowledge that the fascinating journey she describes in her book is a direct result of it.

Taking a cue from scholars who eschew the supposed flagrance and simplicity of those who insist that a genocide should be called a genocide – scholars she exalts like Fatma Muge Gocek and Ronald Grigor Suny – she blatantly avoids connecting the dots.

Gocek, for example, would not be studying the Genocide were it not for the radical Diasporans Toumani was trying to leave behind on her adventure. As people who want the status quo to change without erasing the history of the Genocide, neither Toumani nor Gocek concern themselves with acknowledging the impact of the genocide recognition movement on their objectives.

The unfortunate reality is that Turks and Turkey ignored, neglected, or altogether dismissed the Genocide except when forced to confront it, each time as a consequence of force, whether violent or nonviolent.

That forceful radicalism began with the Armed Struggle, which Toumani limits to a discussion about the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), branding it as terrorism, and moving on. She does not bother with the more conscious, if no less violent, manifestations of that movement, starting with Gourgen Yanikian.

It was only after this period of violence that Turkey suddenly remembered the Armenian Genocide – but continued its policy of absolute denial, methodically continuing to expunge the memory of Armenians from their historic homeland. It then became a test of the wills: Would Armenians submit to anything but what they knew to be true? For those who wouldn’t, several standoffs would ensue over “that dreaded word,” as Toumani describes it: genocide. And the genocide recognition movement was born.

Toumani fails to acknowledge, though, that without the genocide recognition movement, the countervailing Turkish denial movement would eventually be successful in completely destroying a significant part of the Armenian culture for which she expresses sincere love.

Her treatment of the sustained collective rage of Armenians that manifested itself in the Armed Struggle but that also motivated sustained nonviolent pursuits like genocide recognition is so simplistic it borders on the offensive. She even asks early on whether there is “a way to remember a genocide without perpetuating the kind of hatred that gave rise to it in the first place.” Really? To compare the eradication of a people from their historic homeland, the attempted intentional erasure of their history, and the incredible psychosis that made it all possible to nationalistic rhetoric and the assassination of officials tasked with continuing a policy of genocide through denial, its last stage, is embarrassing. Perpetual rage is the least that could be expected following the otherworldly proportions of the destruction of the Armenian Nation and the resounding global silence that accompanied it.

It is easy to see cracks in Turkey’s vehement revisionism – which Toumani acknowledges – as well as novelties like the “apology campaign” and Genocide commemorations in Turkey, in distinct vacuums that are a natural consequence of time. But they’re not.

After all, she describes in detail how scrupulously Turkey had moved to eliminate any trace of Armenians from the history of the land where she lived for two years. What would motivate such a shameless institution to take any step toward acknowledging this thing it was trying so vociferously to forget and make others forget but an intransigent and determined foe? It is this very same foe who challenges the Turkish-flag-draped-Ataturk-photo-adorned gestures at reconciliation Toumani experienced, which cause peaceniks and international capitalists the world over to lose themselves in gleeful exuberance.

Ironically, or maybe not, it is a Turkish acquaintance of Toumani who succinctly explains why genocide recognition is important: “The fundamental principles of the Turkish state…could not be changed by anything that was less powerful than the state itself…The only power Turkey would respond to was power from more powerful countries. To that end, Washington had to pass a genocide resolution.”

Although she spends less time on understanding the genocide recognition movement than she should, Toumani gives us a welcome look into a multifaceted Turkish society with diverse people who believe different things. But here, too, she parses her time, energy, and interest into blocks that leave one side of the story unexplored. While the reader learns about Turkey, he is left with the false impression that Armenians are a monolithic mass, bumbling through life with singular purpose – genocide recognition – and its supposed consequence: hate toward all things Turkish.

Toumani does not grant the same immersion and reflection to Armenians as she does to Turks and her book is weaker for it. She grew up in the Diaspora, around Armenians, and we are asked to accept that this is sufficient for an understanding of the Armenian Diaspora’s reality. It’s not.

She goes to Turkey with a mission, interviewing people of every persuasion and even meeting with former denialist-in-chief, the head of the Turkish Historical Society, Yusuf Halacoglu. She travels the country, from Istanbul to Ankara to Bursa to Diyarbekir. But, a similarly deep and methodical immersion into the Armenian reality, not as a participant but as a researcher, escapes Toumani’s project.

She does not take the time to explore why Diaspora Armenians have their chants, their rhetoric, and their radical lectures. She is so obsessed with how her identity fits alongside the Turkish paradigm, she takes for granted her understanding of the Armenian paradigm.

Toumani writes so honestly that it might make you cringe because she openly challenges what she thinks – and what you think – and lets you in on her exploratory venture. That’s why I waited hopefully for her to have a reckoning with her past troubles in the Diaspora, for her to open herself to her formative, if disdained, experiences in the Diaspora the way she freely entered Turkey with a readiness to challenge her beliefs. But it never came.

The point here was not for her to get on the genocide-recognition-is-the-most-important-thing train and repent for questioning whether this was a worthwhile endeavor. On the contrary, her interest in exploring the vastness of Armenian culture without somehow tying it to the Genocide is and should be welcome. The point is that she uses genocide recognition as a scapegoat for why other areas of Armenian culture and history are neglected but she makes little to no effort to rescind any of her initial assertions despite experiences which suggest that would have been appropriate. And, she leaves the reader thinking she didn’t really change her mind much.

Toumani never articulates fully what her conclusion is after all those experiences. She alludes, in the end, to the same hope that her willing self couldn’t realize when she writes, “How much texture and complexity are sacrificed, lost when we retreat to our trenches?”

This is the book’s major flaw. After a gripping, if uncomfortable, account, Toumani offers no defined conclusion. Perhaps this is her way of saying that, for her, it’s not as black and white as this issue is so often presented. I reject that suggestion.

She is frank about her experiences in Turkey, and her difficulties despite her open-mindedness, like her admission that “[n]ot only were people more intolerant than I expected, but my own prejudices had not gone away, either.” This leads her to retreat into the same trench she laments after her return to the United States but which seemed so fitting for a country where respect – and happiness, it seems – is reserved for the Turk; where rights are reserved for the Turk; where history is reserved for the Turk.

Toumani sees not the banality of strict dichotomy – that is, between genocide and not genocide – but its necessity. She does not go to cafes and sit in taxis ready to blurt out “GENOCIDE!” at any denier she crosses paths with, but she is firm in her convictions and unforgiving when it comes to their denial. Why does she end on such a placid note, devoid of the verve that motivated her adventure? My only guess is that she herself has not reached a conclusion. She knows that the world she grew up in was imperfect but perhaps she realizes that not only is it a part of her, she has not completely renounced it.

Or, she may be telling us something without betraying a plain admission: that she believes in the cause of genocide recognition. She ends the first part of the book quoting Leonardo Alishan and his thought on artistic objectivity – “the ability to see a problem or an experience from multiple points of view, to tell a story for the sake of a deeper understanding, not to further an agenda. To inhabit the mind of the villain as fully as that of the victim” – a concept she seems deeply concerned with.

Alishan, she notes, said that genocide recognition was necessary before artistic objectivity is achieved because a fuller exploration of the depths of the Genocide could not be explored without this “coming to terms” on the part of Turkey. Is this not a wish for Turkey to recognize the Genocide so she and others can express themselves about aspects of the Genocide – as she did in a New York Times article about Gomidas Vartabed – without having to concern herself with the usage of a single word? It is this basic tenet – that genocide recognition is necessary – which she presents as the core impetus for this book but which is neither vindicated nor rejected in the end.

Toumani wants to find a new paradigm, one that allows her the comfort of knowing what she does about the Genocide and about her Armenian identity, while allowing her the freedom she desperately seeks as a creative mind, as someone who resents limits. That is why her invaluable experience, not shared by many a Diaspora Armenian, could have done with some coup de grace for the tropes she has worked to transcend. Rather, we’re left with a timid end, unlike the ferocity of her head-to-head encounter with the security guard at Bursa’s soccer stadium during the Armenia-Turkey soccer match.

Even if the book could have been better, it is encouraging to know that a young Armenian-American spent several years so devoted to an issue about contemporary Armenian identity – and then wrote a book about it.

The questions she asks of herself and of others resonate with someone raised in an immigrant American household, adapting to new customs and ways with little familial direction. I may have expected that her politics would lead her to the tired end of many formerly devout Armenian youth whose disenchantment with one aspect or another of their imposed identity leads them astray, into the arms of a more welcoming, more easy life, one without the burden of cultural and linguistic preservation, replaced with the Epicurean fantasy-cum-reality in adopted Western homes. They haven’t. Toumani enjoys being Armenian. She just wants to be Armenian on her own terms.

However incomplete her story, Toumani cannot be accused of going off the reservation. She lambastes the Turkish insistence on the “false equivalence of experience” and reproaches US president Barack Obama’s failure to call the Genocide a genocide, as he promised, calling his decision to use the phrase Meds Yeghern an “absurd maneuver, almost grotesque in its contrived, contorted way.” She’s not ready to dismiss the genocide recognition movement, she’s just unhappy about its effect on her and the limitations it placed on her “expressive freedom.”

Toumani should be credited with exploring a middle ground that few have been able to do with much success. Often, others who want to assert their independence from the current Armenian paradigm behave like a graduate of Catholic high school moving away from home for university, engaging in a philosophical bacchanalia of sorts. Toumani hardly leaves that impression. She questions her beliefs and those of others but she doesn’t sell them off simply because she isn’t sure whether she accepts their logic.

The ultimate value of this book is that questioning what you are taught to find a logic in it or, even, to prove it wrong, is important in intellectual development. There are many ideas in life to which we are devoted because they are either a residue of what we learned when we were young or because communal and societal rhetoric call for them. Occasionally, the response by the inquisitive is to reject this idea like a rebellious adolescent. Toumani displays enough maturity to spare us this sort of puerile nonsense. The truth is that collective belief in an idea produces no inherent falsity in that idea. However, the veracity or sensibility of an idea, like genocide recognition, should not make it immune to pursuing a deeper understanding about it nor should it become an impediment to other aspects of history, philosophy, culture, or identity. In leaving ourselves open, we might find, like Toumani, that there is a reason to the madness.

Social Movements: Where Are They Now?

Protester in Ukraine at Maidan_WilliamBairamian.me

A social movement can look like and be called many things. Whatever their appearance or name, the goal of all social movements is presumably the same: a change for the better. If this is indeed the ultimate objective of a social movement, it is well worth considering how successfully a movement achieves that objective.

In the past ten years, several social movements have grabbed the world’s attention for the change they promised. Deemed successful for achieving their goal of change, though not necessarily change for the better, further evaluations have been sparsely performed. However, in judging social movements, what happens afterward can often be as important in evaluating success or failure.

The social movements discussed here – the Rose Revolution of Georgia, the Orange Revolution of Ukraine, and the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya – are popular and well-known reference points in the past decade and that is why they were chosen. They also straddle a spectrum that includes nonviolent protest (Georgia and Ukraine) to violent revolution (Libya) and that in-between (Egypt).

There is no question that these movements achieved some success, if only brief or superficial. The question, rather, is whether they secured change for the better, as promised, and as determined by what followed.

First in the course of social movements in the past decade was Georgia. The country had a similar experience with its post-independence government as many of its Soviet-era cohorts like Belarus, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and the Central Asian states.

Strongmen more familiar with politburo than parliament took the reins of countries in disarray, less interested in attending to the people than looking out for themselves and doing the bidding of outside influences – Moscow, in the Soviet case – as they well knew how. In Georgia, that strongman was Eduard Shevardnadze.

In 2003, Shevardnadze, a Soviet leftover, was forced from office during a pro-West and anti-Russia movement called the Rose Revolution. The country welcomed Mikheil Saakashvili, a Western-educated and backed lawyer who promised much in the way of removing the country from the Russian yoke and setting it on a path toward European integration and economic development.

About one year later, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine promised similar changes t0 the Russia-oriented government of the former Soviet republic.

When Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate backed by another Soviet leftover, incumbent Leonid Kuchma, ran for president in 2004, he was challenged by Viktor Yuschenko. Allegations of rampant voter fraud led to a political tug-of-war, called the Orange Revolution, which ended in the courts awarding the presidency to Yuschenko, the pro-Europe, anti-Russia candidate. The court’s decision was hailed as a progressive victory.

Georgia was indeed successful in implementing some reforms and setting its sights on Europe, although the latter may have made for better external publicity than internal stability.

Four short years after the euphoria of Saakashvili’s victory, Georgia saw a familiarly brutal crackdown on the opposition by the Caucasian darling of democracy, complete with curtailment of free press, tear gas, beatings, raids, and water cannons. Furthermore, despite promises of policies more inclusive of Georgia’s several ethnic minorities, little changed, including the lot of the country’s severely discriminated-against Armenian population in Javakhk.

The coup de grace of Saakashvili’s poor governing was the decision to attack his own citizens in South Ossetia, antagonizing Russia and consequently procuring a loss of Georgian territory.

Ultimately, widespread discontent with Saakashvili resulted in Bidzina Ivanshvili, a billionaire opposition candidate, winning the premiership. This was followed by the recent victory of the presidential candidate supported by Ivanshvili, Giorgi Margvelashvili.

In Ukraine, Yanukovych, the man on the losing end of the Orange Revolution, became prime minister in 2006 and has been president of Ukraine since 2010 amid infighting and power struggles in the “Orange” opposition. His opponent during the Revolution, Yuschenko, got 5.45% of the vote in the 2010 presidential election and Yuschenko’s Our Ukraine party got 1.11% in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the leaders of the revolution, has since been convicted of abuse of power and embezzlement and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Although the victory of an opposition candidate does not necessarily translate into the failure of a social movement – and, indeed, might prove its success – it begs the question of whether the people for, and with, whom the movement was taking place believe the resultant change was for the better. In the case of Georgia and Ukraine, the answer points toward an unambiguous no.

More recently, another wave of revolutions struck, this time across the Middle East. Collectively called the Arab Spring, the ostensible objectives in each country varied, ranging from regime change to political and economic reforms. Egypt and Libya, two heavyweights in the Arab world, fundamentally changed as a result of mass protests in the former and armed revolt in the latter.

Egypt, the crown jewel of the Arab Spring because of the country’s size and central role in the Arab world, deposed its resident authoritarian, Hosni Mubarak, and held an election where Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was chosen as the country’s president. There was jubilation but it was short-lived.

Shortly after Morsi tried to implement constitutional reforms, the military conducted a coup d’etat, Morsi was removed, and military rule was instituted. The revolution that was supposed to usher a new era of Egyptian politics became a mockery.

To the west, Libya, led by the eccentric Muammar Gaddafi, fell to groups of ragtag rebels aided by NATO bombings chose force as the primary agent of change. The rebels fought Gaddafi into submission, eventually capturing and killing him.

Now apparently forgotten when it comes to post-revolution analysis, Libya, unable to form a sustainable government for going on three years, is flirting with the ignominy of becoming a failed state. The glee-ridden removal from power, and execution, of Gaddafi & Co. has not guaranteed a better state of affairs.

Social movements, whether revolutions or otherwise, are often thought of as a panacea for societal ills. For precisely that reason, a distinction must be drawn between social movement as feel-good exercise where change is the solely discernible goal and social movement as vehicle, meant to put society on the right trajectory. Frankly, they cannot be an end unto themselves.

Many social movements have been successful but what differentiates them from the failures?

Simply put, the most successful social movements, the agreeability of their goals notwithstanding, have been based on principles that were clearly outlined in speech or writing in the time before society was moved, as it were, toward action. Thereafter, those principles guided the post-movement leaders.

In what might be the only instance where a similarity between them can be noted, the commonality of guiding principles was integral to the initial success and long-term sustainability of the American and French revolutions; the socialist-communist revolutions of Russia, China, Cuba, parts of Central and South America, and southeast Asia; and, the Islamic jihad movement.

Successful social movements continue beyond the streets to become a part of the target society’s fabric and collective mindset. Their ideas become ingrained in the belief systems of the people: American society largely believes in the principles outlined in the texts that readied the people for the Revolution; socialism and communism created vehement believers of those philosophies, some who exist until today; jihadists believe in the righteousness of the terror they wreak upon their enemies.

In contrast, too easily do some social movements devolve into power struggles where one bad system is exchanged for another, where the inheritors of the movement’s spoils seem more concerned with the guise of revolution than adopting a new value system.

Each of the four examples above included revolutionary successors of the deposed who purported support of democracy and change but acted with a disdain for those who disagreed with them, much like the people they replaced. With society unable to believe that their new leaders had their general wellbeing in mind, the goodwill granted the new leaders upon their arrival was irreversibly corrupted.

The greatest social movements begin not on streets but in minds. They may end in public gatherings or violence but they can only be successful with leaders devoted to ideas in which the people can trust – and that they do trust. That is what carries them beyond chants and marches to meaningful and sustainable change.

If any more poignant example is needed, it can be found in modern Armenian history: long before a bullet was fired to liberate Artsakh, a social movement led by intellectuals prepared the groundwork through the proliferation of ideas for what evolved into a victorious fight for liberty.